By J. Peter O’Neill, M.D., M.Div.
During the first week of medical school, I introduce myself to the first year class, and proudly say that I am happy in my career and then I give my entire careers curriculum in one breath. I say: “You were selected to medical school because of outstanding individual academic performance and excelling in the admissions process, but you will be selected for residency only if you can look ‘happy and interested’ and can be wanted by a residency team.”
Each year, most students look back at me with disbelief. They think there must be some MCAT or GPA equivalent in medical school that “will get them in” to residency. They were not part of a team that got in. Nowhere in their preparation for medical school did anyone tell them to look happy.
But being happy and interested can make anyone look great; especially if it is true. It is probably what residency programs look for most. Happy and interested come first, then honesty and diligence. It is not just my personal opinion either.
In our published study on career choice[i] we showed that students choose their residency program based on the variety of clinical experiences, resident morale, and closeness of family. In other words, they wanted a program where residents looked happy and interested, and connected to their families.
We were not the first ones to notice this, but we quantified it with a new method. The Harvard Study on Happiness[ii] showed that happy people enjoyed their careers. People who were open to growth, wanted to do something significant, but also wanted relationships and humor in their lives were happy and successful. Residency programs desperately do not want unhappy residents.
Humor and wonderment are characteristics of the best teachers and mentors in medicine. Drs Neil Piercy and Mike McGrath taught me that. They could enjoy their work with humour, and find affirmation and wonder in the smallest surgeries. I encourage my students to practice wonderment by asking them what they find “cool”. But I wasn’t the first to notice this either. Dr. Ian Cameron writes that many Canadian medical icons share this life long affinity to humour and wonderment.[iii]
Some students come to medical school full of humor and wonderment, and by tending to their physical, mental, academic and spiritual health they still have it. They don’t have to beat CaRMS, they just have to be themselves. Faculty should nourish them by demonstrating the same. Students should practice being part of a team that values humour and wonderment and connectedness to others, by doing that everyday, with their peers.
[i] BMC Medical Education, 2011, 11:61
[ii] George Vaillant, Adaptation to Life, 1977